Sunday, April 28, 2013

Some things by Solzhenitsyn

I have this selection of Solzhenitsyn's writings, and I've read the first section, so I'm going to talk about the bits I read.  There were three lyric poems as well, which I thought were very good, but I'm not going to say anything much about them.

"Besed," chapter 5 of The Trail

While Solzhenitsyn was in the Soviet prison camp for 5 years, he composed a narrative poem of over 7,000 lines, and he did it without any pens or paper.  He composed and memorized the poem with the help of a rosary that acted as a mnemonic device.  Which is just stunning.  It's an autobiographical poem in which Solzhenitsyn gives himself the name of Sergei Nerzhin.  Most of the poem has not been translated into English (as of the time this book was published), so only one chapter is included.  That's still a good long narrative, so I'm going to count this for my poetry challenge.

Besed (say BAYset) is a Belorussian village where Solzhenitsyn's unit fought in 1943, and it's the scene of this chapter.  Nerzhin is stationed in this town, which is constantly under attack from the German forces.  When he goes to confer with his superiors, he's invited to witness the execution of a Russian soldier randomly accused of collaboration with the Germans.  Even as the officials prepare for the execution, German planes threaten to bomb both the judges and the accused, rendering the whole thing pointless.  Nerzhin is horrified by the execution and is starting to realize that Marxism is not producing a more just society.

Short Stories

"Matryona's Home" is a pretty long story about an ex-prisoner who finds a remote country town to settle in, where he can teach mathematics to schoolchildren and live quietly.  He boards with an old lady named Matryona, who is very poor and living in a house that is falling to pieces.  Nevertheless, she works hard, not just to keep herself, but to help out all her neighbors and relatives, who call on her whenever they need an extra pair of hands but otherwise do nothing for her.  Everyone in the village is out to get as much as possible, and when Matryona dies, they do the same.  Only the ex-prisoner realizes--too late--what her worth was.

"The Easter Procession" is really more of a described memory than a story.  It's a childhood experience that made a deep impression on Solzhenitsyn, when, on Easter, a few true believers gather at the church to worship and put on the traditional Easter procession.  They are surrounded and watched by young hooligans who have no understanding of faith, but who are quite likely to start something nasty at any moment.  When the narrator hears one of the old women comment that "this is one of the better years," a relatively peaceful one, he wonders what will become of these future generations who consider themselves enlightened, but who are terrifyingly violent.

"What a Pity" is about Anna, who chances to see a newspaper article that praises her father for the engineering work he did long ago.  I loved this story so just go read it.

"No Matter What," from 1994, contains two stories that contrast and connect.  First some soldiers during World War II snitch some potatoes for a late-night meal and are caught; then a modern bureaucrat tours a once-prosperous river area that has been devastated by centrally-planned projects that were never finished and had little point in the first place.  The locals beg him to convey the importance of preserving what's left of the river, but he can only comment that the new administration won't change its mind, either--"no matter what."

I'm looking forward to reading some more from this collection.  I'm going to skip the excerpts from  In the First Circle, Cancer Ward, and the Gulag Archipelago and go on to the speeches, essays, and bits from Solzhenitsyn's really long final work, The Red Wheel.  You thought a 3-volume Gulag Archipelago and an 800-page novel were long, but no--that last one is 6000 pages on the 1917 Revolution.  Solzhenitsyn must have been one of the most prolific authors ever, I'm thinking.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

It took me a while to get around to reading this; I was feeling sort of lukewarm about it.  I had seen it at work for some time, but only got to it when I needed some reading material for my lunch break one day.  After that I decided to read the whole thing.  Everyone else has already read it, so you don't need much from me!

This is the story of the Dodd family in Berlin at the dawn of Nazi power.  Mr. Dodd was appointed to be the American ambassador to Germany in 1933.  He wasn't a typical ambassadorial type, but he was determined to uphold American ideals--while keeping the Germans happy, something that in retrospect the State Department seems oddly obsessed with.  Half the book covers Dodd's constant troubles as ambassador, and the other half focuses on his daughter Martha, who fancied herself as a dangerous intellectual.

Martha seems a bit of a ninny to me; first she's completely enamored of the new Nazi regime and then, when she figures out how dangerous they are, she decides that she quite likes Soviet Russia.  She engages in affairs with the head of the Gestapo and an NKVD officer, among others.  OK, she's a headstrong young woman who doesn't think ahead much, and people in the 1930s maybe didn't realize how dangerous things were, but good golly.

What I liked about Garden of Beasts was the portrait of Germany on the edge of disaster.  That was fascinating stuff.

Dewey Readathon post

Good morning!  I am not actually awake yet, because it's 5am and I need my sleep, and I will be mostly unable to join in the readathon until this afternoon.  But here is the post where I will make updates.

I'm supposed to answer these questions:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?  Sunny California!  Emphasis on the "sunny"--after a nice cool spring it's in the 90s now.  I live in the rural northern part above Sacramento that everyone forgets about--we hold 2% of the total population of California.

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?  It's a smorgasbord of delight!  I don't even know.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? think I'm well-prepared, don't you?  I have a bag of sunflower seeds/Craisins/almond M&Ms, and I'm thinking quite seriously about treating myself to Indian food tonight.  That's all I've got.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!  I'm a classically homeschooling mom of two girls, a librarian, I sew a lot and read more.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?  This is my first Dewey readathon, and I'm looking forward to reading a lot.  I'm not planning on a whole lot of online participation, since I don't really know what I'm doing and I can't devote the whole day to the event.  In fact, here comes my dad to pick me up now...

6pm update (my first!):  I wasn't able to start reading until nearly 3, so I got quite a late start.   I got lots of exercise in the morning, though, so I'm not feeling cramped.  I have read:

a chunk of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, about 80 pages
two essays by M. Somerset Maugham, about 60 pages
finished R. K. Narayan's novel The English Teacher, about 80 pages

Now it's time for dinner.

9pm update:  There was some stuff going on, so I didn't get as much read as in the first three hours:

about 50 pages of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches and essays
the first 6 chapters of Stendhal's The Red and the Black, 40 pages

Final update: I'm heading to bed, but will read some more there.  I'm hoping to get 100 pages into The Red and the Black and read a little bit more of something else besides.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Fauna & Family

Fauna & Family, by Gerald Durrell

I was so happy when I found this at work the other day!  Gerald Durrell is one of my favorites, and I've collected many of his books, but they are not always easy to get and I'd never read this one.  Plus, a bonus--it's a book about Corfu, which is my favorite kind.  Durrell wrote 3 Corfu books, and this is the third.  You would think he'd have run out of material, but no.

In eight chapters, Durrell tells eight stories: about how the King of Greece came to Corfu and the ensuing mayhem, how the pompous snob guy fell in a swamp and then got moops, and how Jeejee fell out of a window while trying to levitate.  Of course there is as much about animals as about people.  And while I am not really an animal person, there is no resisting Durrell's loving portraits of every kind of creature.

I had a lot of fun with this one.  It was so nice to relax and laugh over the stories.  A new Durrell book is a treasure!  If you have never read one, most especially My Family and Other Animals, you have missed out, and you should stop depriving yourself right this minute.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dewey Readathon on Saturday

I've never done the 24-hour Dewey Readathon before (in fact I've done exactly one readathon ever), but I figure it will be fun to try it out.  I already know that I have other stuff I have to do on Saturday, so it certainly won't be any 24 hours of reading, but I'll read as much as I can and not worry about it.  This is a getting-my-toes-wet readathon.

What I'm supposed to do is start reading at 5am on Saturday morning and, for the next 24 hours, have my nose in a book as much as possible.  I'm supposed to post updates every so often (I figure 3 times is more than enough).  Apparently there are prizes and mini-challenges, but that is probably too advanced for me.

I have lots of great books to read, so no problem there.  Anyone else doing this?  I know I've seen lots of people talking about it, but I'm signing up at the last second.


Botchan, by Natsume Soseki

My brother gave me this a few years ago, and I should have read it before.  Botchan is a classic of 20th-century Japanese literature, plus it's quite fun.  It's frequently compared with Huck Finn in terms of its place in culture; just about everybody reads it when they're young, and it's about a young man who rebels against the system, and it's funny.  Of course it's funnier in the original language--there are a lot of puns, for one thing.

This is the cover on my copy of the 1971 translation, which I think is just great.  It really captures the book.  Most of the covers I saw online were far too serious and important-looking.

The title word means something like "young master," but with a more affectionate connotation.  The narrator gives himself no other name.  That's what his servant Kiyo calls him.

Botchan is something of a troublemaker.  He is impulsive, headstrong, and stubborn--the despair of his parents--and also straightforward and honest.  He has no guile in his character and says just what he thinks.  Only his family's old servant, Kiyo, loves him.  She has utter faith in his goodness and his abilities.  Botchan gets a job as a mathematics teacher at a remote country school, but he has a difficult time working within the system. 

The various other teachers and officials at the school are all types that Botchan reacts to.  He gives them all nicknames, so that you can hardly remember their real names.  Botchan has a lot of respect for the rather elderly "Green Pumpkin," a virtuous and humble man who is treated terribly.  Two characters, Redshirt and the Porcupine, are sort of like two different destinies that Botchan can choose between.  At first he is beguiled by the pseudo-intellectual and manipulative Redshirt, but soon he is won over by Porcupine's moral strength.  Much of the plot consists of the tension between these two characters in their tug-of-war over Botchan's soul.
Redshirt laughed at this remark.  I wasn't aware that I'd said anything funny.  I'd only said what I'd firmly believed up until that moment.  When you come to think of it, the vast majority of people encourage you to be bad.  They seem to believe that, unless you are, you won't succeed in life... 
This is a great book to read if you're looking for a basic classic in Japanese literature, to get your feet wet.  It's not hard to read at all, it's truly a book that everyone is familiar with, and it's a fun read.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Novel Without Lies

A Novel Without Lies, by Anatoly Mariengof

This book is not a novel at all; it's a memoir, but a memoir of the life of a friendship.  Anatoly Mariengof and Sergei Esenin, both young Russian poets, met in 1918 and were inseparable for several years.  Together they lived and wrote and developed the Imagist philosophy of poetry.  But as Esenin became mentally unstable, they drifted apart for a time, though they made amends.  Esenin committed suicide in 1925, and Mariengof wrote down his reminiscences of their time together.

There is not a whole lot of background provided, of course, so it's good to know a little bit about what was going on in Moscow in the 1920s, but you can get by with knowing that the Soviet Republic is newly born, everyone is poor, and Russians take poetry and literature far more seriously than anyone else you know.   Plus the editors provided little side notes in the margins to explain the various people who show up in Mariengof's stories, which is very helpful (but most of them end up either emigrating, exiled, or put to death).

At this time Russian literature had been in ferment for a few decades and there were several competing schools.  I'd heard of Blok and the Symbolists before, but here we also meet Acmeism, Futurism, Ego-Futurism, and Esenin's own Imagism, which is usually known in English as Imaginism to differentiate it from English Imagism.  Esenin and company believed in loading their poems with unusual imagery.  All those poets must have had a marvelous time arguing with each other.  Other people followed all this as well, though; many of the poets mentioned were highly regarded and read by lots of people, to the point that Mariengof can tell a story that would never happen in anywhere else--he got mugged, and as the young toughs were relieving him of his nice new winter coat, they realized who he was: Mariengof, the great writer!  He got to keep his coat.

Mariengof talks about his and Esenin's life together.  By our standards they were horribly poor, freezing in winter and so on, but you can see that as poets they had privileges that others did not.  Esenin is described as lovable--everyone loved him--but he cared little for other people and was often cruel, especially to those closest to him.  Of his character, Mariengof comments that "It's the most unbelievable nonsense, that art ennobles the soul."  He married several times and had several children (not always with the wives, so it gets complex).   Esenin called himself a "hooligan poet," and was popular for his peasant background.

In 1922 Esenin married, of all people, Isadora Duncan--though they did not speak each other's languages.  They were terrible for each other; he was cruel and she came back for more, while her circle was too luxurious and alcoholic for him to handle.  Esenin followed Duncan around Europe, and he hated it.  He was a stranger in a strange land, and no one had heard of him, nor did they care about poetry.  Soon he and Duncan divorced and Esenin went back to Moscow, but he was permanently altered; he drank far too much and became mentally unstable.  Mariengof says that “In none of Esenin’s poems do you find such lyrical warmth, such sadness and pain, as in those he wrote in his final years—the years filled with the black terror of drunkenness, emotional disintegration and bitterness.”

Mariengof's portrait of his friend was soon suppressed by the Soviet government, which felt it to be disrespectful of a poet of the people.  That's completely unsurprising, but it's too bad that the book was treated like that.  Mariengof isn't, in fact, angry or disrespectful of Esenin.  He is honest about his friend's troubled character and the things they got up to, though, and that was enough for the censors.

Dwight at A Common Reader sent me this book, for which I am grateful.  I don't know a whole lot about Russian literature but I want to learn a lot, and this was a great book for me to read.  It's a window into early Soviet Russia, it's the story of two friends who loved each other, and it's a history of a friendship that fell apart into tragedy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

I just felt like I had to read some Jane Austen again, and that it had to be Elinor and Marianne.  It's hard for me to pick a favorite Austen novel (that would be like picking a favorite kind of chocolate truffle) but Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility tie for first, anyway.

Now, I know many people like Marianne best and think Elinor is a prig.  Not me.  I am on Elinor's side every time.  Who else would keep the place running?  It's not that I don't like Marianne, but she is exhausting and I really look forward to her growing up a bit (though of course I wouldn't wish her heartache on her).  Elinor has things to learn too; she falls too far on the side of denying her feelings even to herself, and at last she has to learn even to express them aloud.

This time I paid attention to the very small society that forms the girls' world.  Miss Austen lived in a tightly constricted society that, I think, was very formal because it had to be to survive.  Everyone is living in such close quarters, with little space or time to themselves.  Can you imagine spending weeks and months as a guest in someone else's home, or having visitors in your home for so long?  The careful manners and formality served to create some psychological space where there was no physical distance and little chance to find relief from the constant company of others.

Therefore Elinor spends much of her time making sure that everyone is getting along--she practices tact, couches everything she says in respectful and considerate terms no matter what she really feels, and constantly smooths over her sister's disregard for such social rules.  We might consider her to be dishonest or inauthentic, and certainly she wears a social mask--but in doing so she achieves her goals and makes sure to appreciate the good qualities of the people around her (she is surrounded by fools and enemies, but the fools at least have good points too).  She is able to live with everyone on good terms because she works hard at it, but it's better than the constant bickering and fighting that would otherwise inevitably happen.

Plus, Miss Austen is funny.  She is so funny!  I love her delicate wit.  I laughed out loud when I got to the part about Edward's reconciliation with his mother:
...Edward was admitted to her presence, and pronounced to be again her son. 

Her family had of late been exceedingly fluctuating. For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resuscitation of Edward, she had one again. 

In spite of his being allowed once more to live, however, he did not feel the continuance of his existence secure, till he had revealed his present engagement; for the publication of that circumstance, he feared, might give a sudden turn to his constitution, and carry him off as rapidly as before...

Now I'm in the mood to watch the movie too--the 90s one where Emma Thompson is really too old to play a 19-year-old but it doesn't much matter, and Marianne says "But Elinor, where is your heart?" and gets torn a new one.  I really kind of thought the newer one was better, but that's what I want to watch now.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Last of the Mohicans

Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper

At last, I have finished my Unreadable Book!  Friends, let me just warn you about this one: don't bother unless you have a really good reason.  It's been on my TBR pile for a couple of years, after a bookish friend of mine (IRL!  I have friends who like to read as much as I do!) said that it was her very favorite book.  I kept meaning to get to it, but American literature is not one of my big favorite things and somehow other books always line-jumped ahead.  This year I put it on my TBR list for Adam's challenge so that I would jolly well HAVE to read it, and...

1827 painting by Cole illustrating a scene in "Last of the Mohicans"

Last of the Mohicans is a riproaring frontier adventure with lots of action and suspense, buried under a mountain--no, a mountain range--of excessive verbiage.   Cooper was writing in the 1820s, and his prose combines a 19th-century enthusiasm for euphemism and verbosity with a remarkable lack of elegance and simplicity.  (I read some Jane Austen over the weekend and was struck with the elegance and relative brevity of her lovely prose.)

Nevertheless, Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales" (of which this is the second) were enormously popular.  As far as I can tell, he is the originator of some of our enduring American literary types.  Natty Bumppo, who is known only as Hawkeye here, is the original wandering loner, the tough man without a family or a home who belongs to no-one but protects all those in distress.

Cooper also uses some traditional tropes: the two girls in the story are as stereotypical as they get.  Cora, the elder, is a brunette and therefore intelligent, competent, brave and passionate, but not so much an object of romance.  Alice, the younger, is fair and blonde, sensitive and sweet, and does virtually nothing but faint.  As you might expect, the brave young soldier is hopelessly in love with her and respects Cora as a friend and near-equal.  I was most forcibly reminded of The Woman in White (which, yes, post-dates this novel), but there are lots of other examples of that trope.

The story is set in the mid 18th-century, in the wilds of New York during the French and Indian War.  Cora and Alice are traveling with a soldier chaperone to join their father, who commands an English fort, but they are captured by Indians allied with the French, and together with an odd little band of friends, they travel around the wilderness having adventure after adventure.  Hawkeye and his Indian companions are their protectors, and they have a strange tag-along in the person of David, a professional psalmodist who believes that every problem can be solved by singing a hymn.

Once I got used to the prose, I did enjoy the story, but had a struggle to stay focused; it's often hard to find the sense of the plot through all the words--a real "can't see the forest for the trees" problem.  The first few pages really took me by surprise!   It took me a few weeks to read it, though it's less than 400 pages long.

I was interested to see how much respect Cooper had for the Indians whose culture he was describing.  I wasn't expecting much.  As you would expect, they are frequently described as savage, primitive, brooding, cunning, and so on, but aside from the villain of the piece, Cooper usually describes the Indian characters with much more respect than I anticipated and with recognition of injustices they are suffering.  He conveys a lot of admiration for them, in his way.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Zaremba, or, Love and the Rule of Law, by Michelle Granas

Cordelia lives a severely constricted life in Poland, translating articles and caring for her oddball family members.  This takes up pretty much all her time until she happens to meet Dariusz Zaremba, a businessman whose rivals have targeted him for revenge in the form of false accusations of criminality.  As she is thrown into a new world of smear journalism, publicity, and government corruption, she has to learn to take action--something she has practically never done before.

Although the book is partly a love story, the wider focus is on the rule of law and what happens when governments ignore the rights of individual citizens.  I was quite impressed with that aspect of the novel, and liked certain lines:
She was simply appalled at the powerlessness of the individual before the forces of the state. (p 124)

[on corrupt use of government power]  "The activities of ordinary criminals pale in comparison, if one considers the damage to society and the rule of law." (p.480)

Zaremba was a chunkster, but I didn't think it lagged or anything.  It was worth the time it took to read it and I enjoyed the novel, which is the author's first, quite a bit.  I think I'll be reading it again sometime.

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Short Stories--Chekhov

The Black Monk and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov

Last year for Gothic October I read "The Black Monk" and enjoyed it very much.  I had downloaded it as the first in a collection of Chekov's short stories.  It was published in 1915 and I'm not quite sure what the reasoning behind the selection was; I suppose it was just what the editor preferred.  The biographical sketch in the beginning spells it as Tchekhoff, which seems to me a little overdone, alphabetically speaking.  Anyway, I read the rest of the stories for the Back to the Classics 2013 Challenge, short stories division.

The stories are all sad.  Not romantically melancholy, not tearjerkingly emotional, but plain tragic, with most of the characters caught in circumstances with no solution.  Chekhov saw so much suffering around him--just in ordinary Russian life--and these stories all reflect that.  They are pessimistic about the human condition, about the existence of free will, about Fate.  I can't recall any happy endings or anything like that; they are very modern, in that they tend to peter out at the end rather than have a final resolution (unless the resolution is the protagonist's quiet and pointless death).

They were good stories, but kind of randomly selected.  I think I would prefer reading a more modern edition, with more explanation and notes, but I am interested in reading more Chekhov. I have his plays lined up to read.


To my brother: NO PEEKING.  And no complaining if you do peek.

Stamping Ground hosts What's on Your Workdesk?  Wednesday every week.

Operation Smocking Insanity is just about finished!  I need to add 5 little bullion flowers in the main diamonds, and finish a few little tidying-up details and it is all done--a sundress complete with fancyband, smocking front and back, and a pretty ribbon.  I have done practically nothing this week but smock, and now I am all. smocked. out.  I don't think I'll have anything next week for WOYWW.

I apologize for the truly horrible quality of these photos and the fact that the green t-shirt clashes horribly with the different green in the dress.  I took them very fast while my daughter complained.  I think the dress is going to be too long--which I guess is better than the too-small dress I produced last year.   Maybe some tucks?

Front--needs flowers in the diamonds


Whole thing

Friday, April 12, 2013

Early British Trackways

Early British Trackways, by Alfred Watkins

Several years ago I read a minor classic of British children's fantasy called The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner.  (Then I read it again and posted--very briefly--about it here.)  In the story, the children travel along an "old straight track" that is supposed to be an ancient road.  This theme is developed much further in the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath.  In the notes, Garner talks about the idea that inspired that part of the stories--Alfred Watkins' theories about old straight tracks in Britain.

In about 1920, Watkins (a businessman and local history hobbyist) theorized that there were ancient tracks in Britain, laid out along prominent landmarks and used for trade and travel.  He called these paths "ley lines" and believed that he had discovered quite a few.  The phrase "ley lines" almost certainly makes you think of New Agey beliefs about lines of power leading to special places, and that is because one John Mitchell picked up on Watkins' ideas in the 1960s and brought in the mystical theories.  Watkins himself had no such beliefs in lines of power; he was just talking about trade routes and such.  Either way, his theories about ancient trackways have fallen out of favor because Britain is so thickly scattered with ancient landmarks that you can hardly draw a line on a map that doesn't cross a few.

Regardless of whether or not Watkins was correct, I've wanted to read his book The Old Straight Track ever since I heard of it.  British archaeology and landscape is always guaranteed to grab my attention.  But I've never been able to get hold of a copy; there aren't that many in California.  I keep hoping it will appear on Project Gutenberg or something and I suppose it will someday--it's old enough.  But guess what, last week I found an earlier and shorter book he wrote about the same thing!

Early British Trackways is really a pamphlet or printed speech, not a book.  It's less than 40 pages long and was produced quite early on in Watkins' theorizing, but he had plenty to say--about tracks, landmarks, and related placenames.  I thought it was quite interesting (I realize most people would not!).  There are some photos, but they are terrible.

In many ways it's a very frustrating book to read.  Too old to have many photos or illustrations of what he's talking about, extremely detailed about Herefordshire and environs but no map given (he was talking with fellow locals), and so on.  The first thing I wanted to do was see the places he was talking about, or map them out, and there is virtually no way to do it.  I tried a bit on Google Maps, but the majority of landmarks he names are either re-named now or too small or obscure to feature.  What you would really need is those British Ordnance Survey maps, which are incredibly detailed and quite expensive.

I still want to read The Old Straight Track and see what Watkins thought.  And I want a really good map.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

In Other News...

Some interesting stuff going on lately:

Jenny is collecting people for a read-along of the letters between Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Want to join?

Emily of Classics and Beyond wonders if people would be interested in a read-along of Les Miserables sometime.  Let her know if you are.

Also, I really am reading books.  I have a couple to post about, but the current sewing project is taking up much of my blogging time.  Mainly I'm halfway through two very long books, and one of them qualifies as an Unreadable Book as per Professor Fen's game.  (James Fenimore Cooper, I'm looking at YOU.)

Summer Challenge

Because I don't have enough challenges on my plate...Arenel at  Slightly Cultural, Most Thoughtful and Inevitably Irrelevant  is now Ekaterina at In My Book.  She is hosting a Language Freak Summer Challenge!  In other words, brush up on whatever language you need to practice by reading a book!  The rules are long (yet entertaining) so I'm not going to quote them all here; go take a look.  But this challenge is for you if you answer yes to any of these questions: 

Do you love learning foreign languages?
Have you ever suspected that something is lost in translation when reading a book?
Do you feel ashamed of not practicing some foreign language enough?
Are you an unbearable snob who tells everybody that they haven't read a book if they have read it in translation?

I can answer yes to the first three, though I hope #4 does not apply!  (I'm pretty sure it is true, which makes me really sad because I will never read Russian anywhere near well enough to enjoy Tolstoy properly.  Sigh.  But I would not go around squishing people by saying so.) 

My mother tongue is English, and once upon a time, I spoke Danish pretty fluently.  I even did a couple of Scandinavian lit classes in college and read the books in the original, and I have quite a few Danish books around the house.  But I have gotten rusty and I am ashamed (#3).  I have never really enjoyed reading books in Danish, because it is much harder work than reading in English and I have to go slow, plus the quotation marks are wonky and don't produce dialogue in my head.  But the remedy for that is practice, so!  I hereby commit to reading a Danish book this summer!  I also studied German and Russian in college, and they are pretty much gone.  But if Ekaterina helps me out with finding something very very easy--like, kindergarten easy--I will take a stab at reading a Russian book.  I can still read the alphabet and recognize some words.  That makes 2 books, which puts me at the Intermediate level.  If I read a super-easy German book too, I would be at the Advanced and the Crazy Linguist level, but that would be a bonus.

There we go--summer reading challenge, here I come!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Stamping Ground hosts What's On Your Workdesk? Wednesday every week.  Here is mine:

The baby dress is finished.  It's a size 1, but will be enormous on a one-year-old, and will probably fit her until she is 3!

I finally found the pattern for a sundress I've been wanting to smock for my niece for months.  Then I found out that her birthday is in less than 2 weeks--and a late delivery is no good because my brother is taking his family overseas for a few months right after that.   A really late delivery would be OK, but I'm going to try to get it done.   This is the dress I want to make--it has smocking front and back, which will take longer, but its double layer of fabric is both super-cute and practical.  The construction is simple and ingenious.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Bat

Notice the spotlight with bat silhouette!
The Bat, by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood

It is...the Bat!  That is an actual chapter title, folks.  This thriller had so much cheesy fun that it was hard to put down.  I read it in one day.  It's been a book, a play, and a movie, and eventually it helped to inspire the character of Batman, so I think it counts as a must-read as far as cultural influence goes. 

Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, an 'elderly' and wealthy lady full of gumption, has rented a country home for the summer for herself and her lovely niece, Dale.  But!  So far there have been disturbances every night.  Is the house haunted?  Is someone trying to break in?  Is the legendary super-criminal, the Bat, going to make the house his next target?  Miss Van Gorder brings in a detective, Dale brings in a secret fiance, several other people barge in, and they all spend a scary night in the house complete with murder and hidden treasure and sneaky spooks.

Silent movie poster
As you might expect from a pulp thriller from the 1920s, character stereotypes litter the landscape.  There is a faithful and superstitious Irish maid, an inscrutable Japanese butler who knows jiu-jitsu (cringe-inducingly called Billy the Jap), and of course a courageous and beautiful young woman who faints rather often.  Miss Van Gorder is the best of the lot.

I gather that the novel was actually written after the successful Broadway play was produced, which does explain why it feels like a dramatic script the entire time.   Much of the action is centered in one room, and people enter and leave it right on cue--in fact all of the action is inside the house and only a few rooms are ever seen.  The descriptions are exactly like stage directions, and I should think most of them were taken directly from the script and just elaborated a bit.

The very best thing about The Bat is that it contains the single greatest line in literature, hands-down.  I think you will agree when I say that this line wins the Internet:
"I've stood by you through thick and thin," she mourned in a low voice. "I stood by you when you were a vegetarian - I stood by you when you were a theosophist - and I seen you through socialism, Fletcherism and rheumatism - but when it comes to carrying on with ghosts - "

I think this is the first Mary Rinehart Roberts book I've ever actually read, which is kind of funny--I have several copies of her paperback novels around the house, but that's because I like the cover art.  I do not own The Bat (I sure wish I did!)--I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Case of the Gilded Fly

The Case of the Gilded Fly, by Edmund Crispin

Woohoo!  My mom turned out to have FIVE Crispin mysteries, so I am going to try to space them out.  But I already read another one.

Professor Fen gets a new sidekick in the person of Nigel Blake, a journalist on holiday in Oxford (hoping to meet and date a certain actress).  A prominent playwright is hoping to revive his career by putting on a new play, but tensions are thick between cast members, with minor actress Yseut Haskell at the center.  When Yseut is found murdered in an impossible manner, Professor Fen is the only one who knows what's up.

The mystery was pretty good, with some interesting characters.  I was sad that there were no goofy literary games this time, though.  What bugged me about the story was how Yseut was treated throughout--but that was redeemed (somewhat, I think) in the end, as Fen realizes that Yseut's life was not less valuable than others.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Classics Club: April Meme

The April meme for the Classics Club is:

“Who is hands-down the best literary hero, in your opinion? Likewise, who is the best heroine?”

Gee, that's a terribly difficult question!  There are too many to pick from!  It's like asking me to choose a favorite flower out of the zillions on the planet.

The best heroine is Jane Eyre.  She is tough and honest and has all that integrity; you'll never get her to do something that she believes is wrong.  She sticks to her guns.  Plus, I could live with her and enjoy her company.

I'm having a harder time coming up with a guy.   After reading Huckleberry Finn, though, I'm actually thinking I'll choose Huck.  He's pretty hard to beat, though I'm sure he would think I'm too civilized and fancy, with my quilts and smocking and all.

Not that I don't love Mr. Darcy or all those other romantic heroes, but I feel like I don't know them as well.  I thought I'd better go for a guy who tells his own story.

Oleander Girl

Oleander Girl, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I have been looking forward to the release of Oleander Girl for a while now!  I received it the other day and I enjoyed it just as much as I expected to.  I became a fan of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni around 1996, when my roommate Monica lent me Arranged Marriage, a collection of short stories.   I am ashamed to confess that I still have it, because we live in different states, but happily she says she forgives me.  So, thanks Monica, because I've read every Divakaruni book since then and enjoyed them all.  (Except Palace of Illusions, because I was convinced that something terrible was going to happen to the heroine--it's the story of Paanchali, the wife of the Pandavas--and I wouldn't be able to stand it, so I didn't finish even though I was loving it.  I should really fix that problem.)

Oleander Girl is about Korobi, who has grown up very sheltered in an old-fashioned Bengali family.  Her grandparents have raised her in their crumbling old Kolkata mansion, and all they've ever really told her is that her mother died giving birth to her and her father died even before that.  All Korobi has of her mother is a love letter found in a book of poetry, which has led her to spin daydreams about finding a love as wonderful as that.  Korobi's fiance, Rajat, is her perfect love, isn't he?

As soon as she is engaged, though, Korobi is thrown out of her secure world when her grandfather dies, leaving debts and old secrets behind.  She is devastated to discover how much he kept from her, and decides that she must travel to America to find out more about her past.  But it's been a long time since her mother was a carefree student at UC Berkeley, and as difficulties pile up in America and in Kolkata, Korobi has to call upon strength she never knew she had.  Her journey of self-discovery leads her to learn why her mother would choose to name her after the oleander--which, after all, is both beautiful and poisonous.

Korobi is a wonderful character and I loved her; she is so honest and determined, but vulnerable.  All the characters are beautifully drawn with their strengths and weaknesses; they are real people, not a cardboard cutout among them.  I especially liked Asif, the chauffeur, who has his own life and concerns that only a few people realize.   Everyone's difficulties are real (and serious!) but not predictable; there are several good twists to the story that kept me from getting complacent. 

Kolkata is beautifully described and it's practically a character itself, so be sure to pay attention to the setting.  Overall, the setting is important to the story because so much of current events and politics invade the lives of Korobi and her family members, and I haven't really covered that here, but it adds a lot of weight to their actions.

Divakaruni is certainly an accomplished artist.  I don't have many favorite modern authors, but she is right at the top of that list, and Oleander Girl is lovely.  

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  (And now I can read other reviews; I had to stay away from them until I was done writing mine!)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane

Here we have the newest installment of the WEM project!  I must admit that American literature is one of my really weak areas, and the Civil War is too, and this is on my CC list, so it was good for me to read it.

This is a psychological description of exactly what one boy soldier in the Civil War goes through, from one moment to the next, in his first few days of real war.  At first he is full of dreams of glory and itching to prove himself; then he's terrified or angry or exalted with pride.  His self-justifications and inability to admit mistakes are so real and human, just like what we all half-consciously do all the time.

I'm amazed at how Stephen Crane's imagination allowed him to write a book that seems so real that many Civil War veterans assumed that he was one of them (one claimed to have fought with him at Antietam!); and yet Crane never saw a battle at all.  He was born in 1871 and grew up listening to stories of the war--and he managed to write a book that was perfectly realistic and psychological, with no trace of the sentimentality or overblown regard for the glories of war that we might expect to find.  It's a modern book written at least 20 years before that kind of thing came into fashion, and it avoids the modern error we occasionally find of wallowing in muck for the sake of shock value.  It's an amazing accomplishment.

What's On Your Workdesk? Wednesday 2

Although I don't know that I'll do this meme every week, I think it is a really fun thing to do, so here's my second installment.  I haven't actually done much sewing this week--the baby dress is ready to have sleeves put on but looks exactly as it did a week ago as far as photography is concerned.  I have made some progress on the smocking on the little-girl dress:

But mostly this week has been Easter/springtime/birthday stuff going on.  My younger daughter turned 10 yesterday (snif), and we spent Monday out hiking and looking at wildflowers.  Here is the birthday girl identifying frying pans, a very small yellow poppy.